Territorial advantage?

One of the recurring themes regarding the playing style of football teams is the idea that teams attempt to strike a balance between controlling space and controlling possession. The following quote is from this Jonathan Wilson article during the European Championships in 2012, where he discusses the spectrum between proactive and reactive approaches:

Great teams all have the same characteristic of wanting to control the pitch and the ball – Arrigo Sacchi.

No doubt there are multiple ways of defining both sides of this idea.

Controlling the ball is usually represented by possession, that is the proportion of the passes that a team plays in a single match or series of matches. If a team has the ball, then by definition, they are controlling it.

One way of defining the control of space is to think about ball possession in relation to the location of the ball on the pitch. A team that routinely possesses the ball closer to their opponents goal potentially benefits from the increased attacking opportunities that this provides, while also benefiting from the ball being far away from their own goal should they lose it.

There are certainly issues with defining control of space in this way though e.g. a well-drilled defence may be happy to see a team playing the ball high up the pitch in front of them, especially if they are adept at counter-attacking when they win the ball back.

Below is a heat map of the location of received passes in the 2013/14 English Premier League. The play is from left-to-right i.e. the team in possession is attacking towards the right-hand goal. We can see that passes are most frequently received in midfield areas, with the number of passes received decreasing quickly as we head towards each penalty area.

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Heat map of the location of received passes in the 2013/14 English Premier League. Data via Opta.

Below is another heat map showing pass completion percentage based on the end point of the pass. The completion percentage is calculated by adding up all of the passes to a particular area on the pitch and comparing that to the number of passes that are successfully received. One thing to note here is that the end point of uncompleted passes relates to where possession was lost, as the data doesn’t know the exact target of each pass (mind-reading isn’t part of the data collection process as far as I know). That does mean that the pass completion percentage is an approximation but this is based on over 300,000 passes, so the effect is likely small.

What is very clear from the below graphic is that when within a teams own half, passes are completed routinely. The only areas where this drops are near the corner flags; I assume this is due to players either clearing the ball or playing it against an opponent when boxed into the corner.

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Heat map of pass completion percentage based on the target of all passes in the 2013/14 English Premier League. Data via Opta.

As teams move further into the attacking half, pass completion drops. In the central zone within the penalty area, less than half of all passes are completed and this drops to less than 20% within the six yard box. These passes within the “danger zone” are infrequent and completed far less frequently than other passes. This danger zone is frequently cited by analysts looking at shot location data as the prime zone for scoring opportunities; you would imagine that receiving passes in this zone would be beneficial.

None of the above is new. In fact, Gabe Desjardins wrote about these features using data from a previous Premier League season here and showed broadly similar results (thanks to James Grayson for highlighting his work at various points). The main thing that looks different is the number of passes played into the danger zone, I’m not sure why this is but 2012/13 and 2014/15 so far look very similar to the above in my data.

Gabe used these results to calculate a territory statistic by weighting each pass by its likelihood of being completed. He found that this measure was strongly related to success and the performance of a team.

Below is my version of territory plotted against possession for the 2013/14 Premier League season. Broadly there are four regimes in the below plot:

  1. Teams like Manchester City, Chelsea and Arsenal who dominate territory and have plenty of possession. These teams tend to pin teams in close to their goal.
  2. Teams like Everton, Liverpool and Southampton who have plenty of possession but don’t dominate territory (all there are just under a 50% share). Swansea are an extreme case in as they have lots of possession but it is concentrated in their own half where passes are easier to complete.
  3. Teams like West Brom and Aston Villa who have limited possession but move the ball into attacking areas when they do have it. These are quite direct teams, who don’t waste much time in their build-up play. Crystal Palace are an extreme in terms of this approach.
  4. Teams that have limited possession and when they do have it, they don’t have much of it in dangerous areas at the attacking end of the pitch. These teams are going nowhere, slowly.
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Territory percentage plotted against possession for English Premier League. Data via Opta.

Liverpool are an interesting example, as while their overall territory percentage ranks at fourteenth in the league, this didn’t prevent them moving the ball into the danger zone. For just passes received within the danger zone, they ranked third on 3.4 passes per game behind Chelsea (3.8) and Manchester City (4) and ahead of Arsenal on 2.9.

This ties in with Liverpool’s approach last season, where they would often either attack quickly when winning the ball or hold possession within their own half to try and draw teams out and open up space. Luis Suárez was crucial in this aspect, as he averaged 1.22 completed passes into the danger zone per 90 minutes. This was well ahead of Sergio Agüero in second place on 0.94 per 90 minutes.

The above is just a taster of what can be learnt from this type of data. I’ll be expanding on the above in more detail and for more leagues in the future.

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Germany vs Portugal: passing network analysis

Germany faced Portugal in their opening Group G match, with Germany winning 4-0 and Pepe being an idiot (surprise, surprise). Faced with the decision on which diminutive gifted midfielder to leave out of the starting eleven, Jogi Löw just went ahead and picked all of them. Furthermore, Germany’s best fullback, Phillip Lahm played centre midfield. Ronaldo was fit enough to start for Portugal.

Below are the passing networks for both Germany (left) and Portugal (right) based on data from Fifa.com. More information on how these are put together is available here in my previous posts on this subject. For Germany, I’ve not included the substitutes as they contributed little in this aspect. For Portugal, I included Eder who came on for the injured Hugo Almeida after 28 minutes.

Passing networks for the World Cup Group G match between Germany and Portugal at the Arena Fonte Nova, Salvador on the 16th June 2014. Only completed passes are shown. Darker and thicker arrows indicate more passes between each player. The player markers are sized according to their passing influence, the larger the marker, the greater their involvement. Click on the image for a larger view.

Bear in mind that the passing networks above are likely skewed by game state effects, with Germany leading and playing 11 vs 10 for a large proportion of the match.

Germany

Germany lined up with something like a 4-1-5-0 formation in the first half, with their full backs being relatively unadventurous, Phillip Lahm playing ahead of the centre backs with Sami Khedira running from deep and often beyond his attacking compatriots. Khedira was less aggressive in the second half with Germany three goals ahead and with a numerical advantage. In the graphic above, I’ve got them lined up in a 4-2-4ish formation based on a mixture of their average positions and making the plot look pretty. In reality, the side was very compact with the central defenders playing a high line and the attackers dropping off continually.

Lahm and Khedira provided a controlling influence for Germany, forming the link between the defence and attack. Höwedes and Boateng were also well involved in build-up play, although they had limited involvement in terms of direct creativity, with just one cross and no key passes between them.

The attacking quartet were all about fluid movement and passing links, as can be seen in the passing network above. Kroos was similarly influential to Lahm/Khedira but with a slightly higher position up the pitch. Özil and Götze were also heavily involved, while Müller was the least involved (unsurprisingly). The relative balance between the German play-makers meant that their attacks were not simply funnelled through one individual, which led to some lovely passing inter-changes and several high-quality shooting opportunities.

Portugal

Portugal’s passing network was dominated by their central midfielders but they struggled to involve their attacking players in dangerous areas. Ronaldo in particular saw relatively little involvement and the passes he did receive were often well away from the danger-zone. The one Portuguese attacker who was well-involved was Nani; unfortunately for Portugal, he put in a fairly terrible performance. Despite his involvement, Nani created no shooting opportunities for his team mates and put in a total of six crosses with none finding a fellow Portuguese. He did have three shots, with one on target. Sometimes a relatively high passing influence is a bad thing if the recipient wastes their involvement.

Portugal did look dangerous on the counter-attack prior to Pepe’s sending off but failed to really create a clear chance from these opportunities. Overall, Portugal’s passing network was too heavily weighted away from their (potentially) dangerous attacking players and when they did get the ball, they didn’t do enough with it.

Moving forward

Germany were impressive, although this was likely facilitated by Pepe’s indiscretion and the game being essentially over at half-time. The game conditions were certainly in their favour but they capitalised fully. If they can keep their gifted band of play-makers weaving their magic, then they will do well. They’ll need Müller to keep finishing their passing moves, while Mario Götze found himself in several promising shooting situations which may well yield goals on future occasions.

Conversely, Portugal were hampered by the match situation although they looked worryingly dependent on Ronaldo in attack, as noted by the imperious Michael Cox in his recap of day five. Furthermore, the USA likely won’t give them as much space to attack as Germany did. They’ll need to improve the passing links to their dangerous attackers if they are to have much joy at this tournament.

Newcastle United vs Liverpool: passing network analysis

Liverpool defeated Newcastle 6-0 at St James’ Park. Below is the passing network analysis for Liverpool split between the first 75 minutes of the match and the rest of the match up to full time. I focussed just on Liverpool here. More information on how these are put together is available here in my previous posts on this subject.

The reason I separated the networks into these two periods was that I noticed how Liverpool’s passing rate changed massively after Steven Gerrard was substituted and the fifth goal was scored. During the first 75 minutes, Liverpool attempted 323 passes with a success rate of 74% and a 45% share of possession. After this, Liverpool attempted 163 passes with an accuracy of 96% and a 60% share of possession. Liverpool attempted 34% of their passes in this closing period. Let’s see how this looks in terms of their passing network.

The positions of the players are loosely based on the formations played, although some creative license is employed for clarity. It is important to note that these are fixed positions, which will not always be representative of where a player passed/received the ball. The starting eleven is shown on the pitch for the first 75 minutes, with Borini replacing Gerrard in the second network.

Passing networks for Liverpool for the first and second halfs against Swansea City from the match at Anfield on the 17th February 2013. Only completed passes are shown. Darker and thicker arrows indicate more passes between each player. The player markers are sized according to their passing influence, the larger the marker, the greater their influence. Players with an * next to their name were substituted. Click on the image for a larger view.

Passing networks for Liverpool for the first 75 minutes and up to full time against Newcastle United from the match at St James’ Park on the 27th April 2013. Only completed passes are shown. Darker and thicker arrows indicate more passes between each player. The player markers are sized according to their passing influence, the larger the marker, the greater their influence. Click on the image for a larger view.

Liverpool’s passing was quite balanced for the first 75 minutes of the match, with a varied passing distribution. There was a stronger bias towards the right flank compared with the left flank as Gerrard drifted right to combine with Johnson and Downing. The passing influence scores were also evenly distributed across the whole team with Gerrard and Lucas being the top two. A contrast with some previous matches is the lack of strong links along the back line, which indicates less reliance on recycling of possession in deeper areas. Instead, Liverpool were seeking to move the ball forward more quickly and played the ball through the whole team.

He makes us happy

After Gerrard and Lucas, the next most influential player was Coutinho, who put in a wonderfully creative performance as the attacking fulcrum of the team. He linked well with all of Liverpool’s forward players and threaded several dangerous passes to his team-mates including an assist and a ‘second goal assist’ (defined as a pass to the goal assist creator) for the second goal according to EPL-Index. His creative exploits thus far have been hugely promising during his first 10 appearances.

Sterile domination

The final period of the match saw Liverpool really rack up the passing numbers as mentioned earlier. Clearly, this is easier to do when 5 or 6 goals clear but it is still potentially illustrative to see how this was accomplished. The main orchestrator’s of this were Lucas and Henderson who were 28/28 and 35/35 for passes attempted/completed during this period. Henderson was 21/24 from the first 75 minutes, so this was quite a rapid increase with his shift in role after Gerrard went off and the state of the game.

Your challenge should you wish to accept it

Admittedly Newcastle were very poor in this match but Liverpool took advantage to enact a severe thrashing. This was accomplished without Suárez, which leads to obvious (premature?) questions about whether his absence improved Liverpool’s overall balance and play. Assuming that Suárez doesn’t leave in the summer, one of Bredan Rodgers’ key tasks will be developing a system that gets the best out of the attacking talents of Suárez, Coutinho and Sturridge. It could be quite tasty if he manages to accomplish this.

Borussia Dortmund vs Real Madrid: passing network analysis

Borussia Dortmund defeated Real Madrid 4-1.

Below is the passing network for the match. The positions of the players are loosely based on the formations played by the two teams, although some creative license is employed for clarity. It is important to note that these are fixed positions, which will not always be representative of where a player passed/received the ball. Only the starting eleven is shown as the substitutes had little impact in a passing sense.

Passing network for Bayern Munich and Barcelona from the Champions League match at the Allianz Arena on the 23rd April 2013. Only completed passes are shown. Darker and thicker arrows indicate more passes between each player. The player markers are sized according to their passing influence, the larger the marker, the greater their influence. The size and colour of the markers is relative to the players on their own team i.e. they are on different scales for each team. Only the starting eleven is shown. Click on the image for a larger view.

Passing networks for Borussia Dortmund and Real Madrid from the Champions League match at the Westfalenstadion on the 24th April 2013. Only completed passes are shown. Darker and thicker arrows indicate more passes between each player. The player markers are sized according to their passing influence, the larger the marker, the greater their influence. The size and colour of the markers is relative to the players on their own team i.e. they are on different scales for each team. Only the starting eleven is shown. Click on the image for a larger view.

The most striking difference between the sides respective passing networks was that Real had a greater emphasis down the flanks, with strong links between the wide players and their full backs. Dortmund were quite balanced in their passing approach with much of their play going through the trio of Hummels, Gundogan and Gotze.

Influential potential

Dortmund’s number ‘ten’ (Gotze) had a greater influence on proceedings than Modric did for Real, with Gotze coming second only to Gundogan in terms of passing influence for Dortmund. Ozil was far more influential than Modric, although he rarely combined with Higuain and Ronaldo. Modric was well down the pecking order for Madrid with the likes of Pepe, Varane and Coentrao ahead of him. On its own, this might not have been a problem but aside from Ramos and Lopez, the only other Real players with less influence were Higuain and Ronaldo. This contrasts directly with Dortmund, where Reus and Lewandowski played an important linking roles.

In summary, Dortmund’s attacking players were among their most influential passing performers; Real Madrid’s were not.

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Passing matrices from Uefa.com press kits.

Bayern Munich vs Barcelona: passing network analysis

Bayern Munich defeated Barcelona 4-0 with a dominant performance. The way both teams approached the game in terms of their passing was interesting and worth some additional analysis.

Much of the post-match discussion on TV focussed on Barcelona’s dominance of possession not being reflected in the final scoreline. According to UEFA, Barcelona had 63%, while WhoScored/Opta had it at 66%. However, Bayern were well ahead in terms of shots (15-4 in favour of Bayern, with a 7-1 advantage for on-target shots). It seems that whenever Barcelona lose, their possession statistics are trotted out as a stick to beat them with. Given that Barcelona have gone more than 300 games and close to half a decade since they last played a game with less than 50% possession, I very much doubt there is causality between their possession statistics and match results. Barcelona choose to play this way and it has certainly been successful. However, it is worth remembering that not all teams play the same way and the assumption that there is a single holy grail metric that can ‘explain’ winning football matches is probably a fool’s errand. Even if one does exist, it isn’t a match aggregated possession statistic.

Process, not outcome

In terms of passing, I’ve tried to look more at the process using network analysis to establish how teams pass the ball and which players are the most influential in passing terms in a given match, rather than focussing on a single statistic. Below is the passing network for the match. The positions of the players are loosely based on the formations played by the two teams, although some creative license is employed for clarity. It is important to note that these are fixed positions, which will not always be representative of where a player passed/received the ball. Only the starting eleven is shown as the substitutes had little impact in a passing sense.

Passing network for Bayern Munich and Barcelona from the Champions League match at the Allianz Arena on the 23rd April 2013. Only completed passes are shown. Darker and thicker arrows indicate more passes between each player. The player markers are sized according to their passing influence, the larger the marker, the greater their influence. The size and colour of the markers is relative to the players on their own team i.e. they are on different scales for each team. Only the starting eleven is shown. Click on the image for a larger view.

As might be expected, the contrast between the two teams is quite clear. Bayern focussed their passing down the flanks, with Ribery and Robben combining well with their respective full-backs. Neuer, Dante and Boateng fed the full-backs well to begin these passing transitions. Barcelona on the other hand engaged in their familiar multitude of passing triangles, although with a bias towards their right flank. There are a number of strong links although the somewhat uninspiring Bartra-Pique link was the strongest (23 passes).

Sterile domination

The issue for Barcelona was that their possession was largely in deeper areas, away from Bayern’s penalty area. This was neatly summed up by this tweet (including a graphic) by Albert Larcada:

While Barcelona’s passing network showed plenty of combinations in deeper areas, their more attacking players combined much less, with the links between Alexis, Messi and Pedro being relatively weak. In particular, the passes to Messi were low in number as he received just 7 passes combined from Iniesta (3), Pedro (2) and Alexis (2). Messi had much stronger links with Xavi (received 20 passes) and Alves (received 19 passes) although I suspect many of these were in deeper areasWhile, Barcelona’s midfield three exerted their usual influence, the next most influential players were Pique and Bartra. This is a stark comparison with the home match against AC Milan, where Messi was the most influential player after the midfield trio.

Bayern did a great job of limiting Messi’s influence, although his injury likely contributed also.

Avoid the puddle

Schweinsteiger was the most influential player for Bayern, linking well with Dante, Alaba and Ribery. After the centre-backs, Bayern’s next most influential players were Robben and Ribery who counter-attacked superbly, with excellent support from their full-backs. As discussed by Zonal Marking, Bayern preyed on Barcelona’s weakness on the counter-attack with speedy breaks down the flanks.

Bayern were incredibly effective and deservedly won the match and very likely the tie.

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Passing matrices from Uefa.com press kits.

Barcelona vs AC Milan: passing network analysis

Barcelona. Good at the football.

Passing network for Liverpool and West Brom from the match at Anfield on the 11th February 2013. Only completed passes are shown. Darker and thicker arrows indicate more passes between each player. The player markers are sized according to their passing influence, the larger the marker, the greater their influence. The size and colour of the markers is relative to the players on their own team i.e. they are on different scales for each team. The player markers are coloured by the number of times they lost possession during the match, with darker colours indicating more losses. Only the starting eleven is shown. Players with an * next to their name were substituted. Click on the image for a larger view.

Passing network for Barcelona and AC Milan from the Champions League match at the Camp Nou on the 12th March 2013. Only completed passes are shown. Darker and thicker arrows indicate more passes between each player. The player markers are sized according to their passing influence, the larger the marker, the greater their influence. The size and colour of the markers is relative to the players on their own team i.e. they are on different scales for each team. Only the starting eleven is shown. Click on the image for a larger view.

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Passing matrices from Uefa.com press kits.

More information on these passing networks is available here.

I don’t have time for a fuller write-up but this from Zonal Marking is excellent.

Liverpool vs Zenit St Petersburg: passing network analysis

Liverpool beat Zenit 3-1 at Anfield but went out of the Europa League on away goals. Below is the passing network analysis for Liverpool for both the first hour and the final 30 minutes of the match. This coincides with Liverpool’s sumptuous third goal and the double substitution that saw Assaidi and Shelvey replace Henderson and Allen. More information on how these passing networks are put together is available here in my previous posts on this subject.

The positions of the players are loosely based on the formations played by the two teams, although some creative license is employed for clarity. It is important to note that these are fixed positions, which will not always be representative of where a player passed/received the ball. The starting eleven is shown on the pitch for the first hour, with the substitutes shown for the final 30 minutes. Sterling was only on the pitch for a brief period so I’ve omitted him from the second network.

Passing networks for Liverpool for the first and second halfs against Swansea City from the match at Anfield on the 17th February 2013. Only completed passes are shown. Darker and thicker arrows indicate more passes between each player. The player markers are sized according to their passing influence, the larger the marker, the greater their influence. Players with an * next to their name were substituted. Click on the image for a larger view.

Passing networks for Liverpool for the first 60 minutes and final 30 minutes of the match against Zenit St Petersburg from the match at Anfield on the 21st February 2013. Only completed passes are shown. Darker and thicker arrows indicate more passes between each player. The player markers are sized according to their passing influence, the larger the marker, the greater their influence. Players with an * next to their name were substituted. Click on the image for a larger view.

Liverpool’s initial selection circulated possession well within the midfield zone, which is perhaps unsurprising given how possession friendly the midfield was. Compared with Coutinho and Suárez in the match against Swansea, Henderson and Allen primarily look to maintain possession rather than being more direct with their approach play. This meant that Liverpool dominated possession and kept Zenit pinned back in their half generally. Enrique and Johnson were also heavily involved and provided a great deal of width. At the hub of Liverpool’s play was Lucas who knitted things together superbly and combined effectively with all of his team mates.

Zenit did generally defend very well though and Liverpool struggled to create particularly incisive moves, although Allen’s goal was the result of excellent interplay between Henderson and Enrique (the strongest passing link in the first hour). Two set-piece goals from Suárez though set the platform for a potentially memorable comeback after Zenit’s away goal.

Anything could happen in the next half hour

Liverpool’s double substitution after the third goal saw two more direct attacking threats joining the fray as the side looked for a potential tie-winning goal. However, looking at the passing network for the last half hour, Liverpool struggled to bring their attacking players into the game. Liverpool shot frequency actually declined in this period with a succession of crosses from both open-play and set-pieces being delivered into the box. Zenit defended particularly well during this period and maintained possession for short periods to stem the tide of Liverpool attacks. They also pressed high up the pitch which saw some nervous moments in the crowd as well as the odd passage on the pitch! While the changes likely didn’t help Liverpool to any great extent, chances were still created that could have won the tie plus Zenit also boxed clever while often under a lot of pressure.

Over and out

Unfortunately Liverpool weren’t able to score that crucial fourth goal in the final 30 minutes that could have seen them go through. On a personal note, it was a privilege to be a part of a fantastic atmosphere at Anfield, which nearly saw an improbable comeback to add to Liverpool Football Club’s folklore.

Is playing style important?

I’ve previously looked at whether different playing styles can be assessed using seasonal data for the 2011/12 season. The piece concentrated on whether it was possible to separate different playing styles using a method called Principal Component Analysis (PCA). At a broad level, it was possible to separate teams between those that were proactive and reactive with the ball (Principal Component 1) and those that attempted to regain the ball more quickly when out of possession (Principal Component 2). What I didn’t touch upon was whether such features were potentially more successful than others…

Below is the relationship between points won during the 2011/12 season and the proactive/reactive principal component. The relationship between these variables suggests that more proactive teams, that tend to control the game in terms of possession and shots, are more successful. However, the converse could also be true to an extent in that successful teams might have more of the ball and thus have more shots and concede fewer. Either way, the relationship here is relatively strong, with an R2 value of 0.61.

Blah.

Relationship between number of points won in the 2011/12 season with principal component 1, which relates to the proactive or reactive nature of a team. More proactive teams are to the right of the horizontal axis, while more reactive teams are to the left of the horizontal axis. The data is based on the teams in the top division in Germany, England, Spain, France and Italy from WhoScored. The black line is the linear trend between the two variables. A larger interactive version of the plot is available either by clicking on the graph or clicking here.

Looking at the second principal component, there is basically no relationship at all with points won last season, with an R2 value of a whopping 0.0012. The trend line on the graph is about as flat as a pint of lager in a chain sports bar. There is a hint of a trend when looking at the English and French leagues individually but the sample sizes are small here, so I wouldn’t get too excited yet.

Playing style is important then?

It’s always tempting when looking at scatter plots with nice trend lines and reasonable R2 values to reach very steadfast conclusions without considering the data in more detail. This is likely an issue here as one of the major drivers of the ‘proactive/reactive’ principal component is the number of shots attempted and conceded by a team, which is often summarised as a differential or ratio. James Grayson has shown many times how Total Shots Ratio (TSR, the ratio of total shots for/(total shots for+total shots against)) is related to the skill of a football team and it’s ability to turn that control of a game into success over a season. That certainly appears to play a roll here, as this graph demonstrates, as the relationship between points and TSR yields an R2 value of 0.59. For comparison, the relationship between points and short passes per game yields an R2 value of 0.52. As one would expect based on the PCA results and this previous analysis, TSR and short passes per game are correlated also (R2 = 0.58).

Circular argument

As ever, it is difficult to pin down cause and effect when assessing data. This is particularly true in football when using seasonal averaged statistics as score effects likely play a significant role here in determining the final totals and relationships. Furthermore, the input data for the PCA is quite limited and would be improved with more context. However, the analysis does hint at more proactive styles of play being more successful; it is a challenge to ascribe how much of this is cause and how much is effect.

Danny Blanchflower summed up his footballing philosophy with this quote:

The great fallacy is that the game is first and last about winning. It is nothing of the kind. The game is about glory, it is about doing things in style and with a flourish, about going out and beating the other lot, not waiting for them to die of boredom.

The question is, is the glory defined by the style or does the style define the glory?

Liverpool vs Swansea: passing network analysis

Liverpool defeated Swansea 5-0 at Anfield. Below is the passing network analysis for Liverpool for both the first and second half. Usually I compare with the opposition but I think it is more interesting here to compare across each half. More information on how these are put together is available here in my previous posts on this subject.

The positions of the players are loosely based on the formations played by the two teams, although some creative license is employed for clarity. It is important to note that these are fixed positions, which will not always be representative of where a player passed/received the ball. The starting eleven is shown on the pitch for the first half, while I have shown Henderson rather than Coutinho for the second half as he came on after 60 minutes.

Passing network for Liverpool and West Brom from the match at Anfield on the 11th February 2013. Only completed passes are shown. Darker and thicker arrows indicate more passes between each player. The player markers are sized according to their passing influence, the larger the marker, the greater their influence. The size and colour of the markers is relative to the players on their own team i.e. they are on different scales for each team. The player markers are coloured by the number of times they lost possession during the match, with darker colours indicating more losses. Only the starting eleven is shown. Players with an * next to their name were substituted. Click on the image for a larger view.

Passing networks for Liverpool for the first and second halfs against Swansea City from the match at Anfield on the 17th February 2013. Only completed passes are shown. Darker and thicker arrows indicate more passes between each player. The player markers are sized according to their passing influence, the larger the marker, the greater their influence. Players with an * next to their name were substituted. Click on the image for a larger view.

Looking at the passing networks for each half, there are clear differences for Liverpool. During the first half, there was much less interplay between Liverpool’s attacking players, central midfielders and full backs. There are many more stronger linkages between players in the second half passing network than the first as more passing triangles are built up. This is borne out by the general passing data from Squawka as Liverpool attempted 242 passes in the first half (83% completion rate) compared to 306 passes in the second (89% completion rate). The scoring of the penalty in the first half and early second goal after half time likely meant Liverpool were more patient in their approach coupled with tactical switches/substitutions. This also shows up somewhat in the shots data, as Liverpool attempted 22 shots first half, compared with 13 in the second.

Quietly effective

I tweeted the full passing network after the match having not watched it and commented that it looked like Gerrard had once again been influential. Gerrard’s performance was described as quietly effective by the Liverpool Twitterati, which seems like an apt description. While he was the most influential player for Liverpool in the first half (narrowly ahead of Lucas), he really dictated things in the second half. While the scoreline likely played a role here, Mihail Vladimirov pointed out a subtle tactical shift also, where Gerrard received the ball in deeper areas during the second half compared with the first. This likely allowed Gerrard more time/space to dictate play from deep.

Almost the whole team increased their passing influence scores in the second half, aside from Lucas and Suárez, who were both similar across both halves. Liverpool’s attacking players really came to the fore during the second half as they were all more involved. Furthermore, Henderson was impressively influential considering he only played 30 minutes and played quite a different role to Coutinho, as pointed out on the Oh you beauty blog.

Liverpool’s performance in this match, particularly in the second half was impressive even with the mitigation of Swansea fielding a weakened team. The key for the rest of the season will be recreating such performances against full-strengh sides and without the benefit of such a comfortable lead.

Liverpool vs West Bromwich Albion: passing network analysis

Liverpool lost to West Bromwich Albion 2-0 at Anfield. Below is the passing network analysis for Liverpool and West Brom. More information on how these are put together is available here in my previous posts on this subject.

The positions of the players are loosely based on the formations played by the two teams, although some creative license is employed for clarity. It is important to note that these are fixed positions, which will not always be representative of where a player passed/received the ball. Only the starting eleven is shown on the pitch, as the substitutes weren’t hugely interesting from a passing perspective in this instance.

Passing network for Manchester City and Liverpool from the match at the Etihad on the 3rd February 2013. Only completed passes are shown. Darker and thicker arrows indicate more passes between each player. The player markers are sized according to their passing influence, the larger the marker, the greater their influence. The size and colour of the markers is relative to the players on their own team i.e. they are on different scales for each team. Only the starting eleven is shown. Players with an * next to their name were substituted. Click on the image for a larger view.

Passing network for Liverpool and West Brom from the match at Anfield on the 11th February 2013. Only completed passes are shown. Darker and thicker arrows indicate more passes between each player. The player markers are sized according to their passing influence, the larger the marker, the greater their influence. The size and colour of the markers is relative to the players on their own team i.e. they are on different scales for each team. The player markers are coloured by the number of times they lost possession during the match, with darker colours indicating more losses. Only the starting eleven is shown. Players with an * next to their name were substituted. Click on the image for a larger view.

There are some contrasting features between the two sides here. Liverpool’s standard recycling of possession in deeper areas is evident, with interplay between Reina, the back four and the midfield two of Lucas and Gerrard. West Brom showed some similar features, although the link between their centre backs is much weaker than the link between Agger and Carragher.

Mulumbu and Morrison were impressive for West Brom, linking well with the players around them. They formed some nice triangular passing structures with those around them, particularly with their midfield partner Yacob. Based on their passing network, West Brom passed the ball around well when they had it although Long wasn’t hugely involved (he did provide his usual nuisance value though).

One of the major differences is how both sides involved their respective centre forwards. Long generally either received the ball from deeper areas e.g. the long link between himself and Foster (although many of the passes were unsuccessful) or by linking up with Morrison, who was typically the most advanced of West Brom’s central midfielders. In contrast, the link between Shelvey and Suárez is almost non-existent. Given that these two were ostensibly Liverpool’s two most attacking players, the lack of interplay between them was disappointing.

Ineffectual width

With Henderson and Downing continuing on their “unnatural” sides, Liverpool’s fullbacks had plenty of space to move into down the flanks. This meant they were often a natural passing outlet for their team mates and this is highlighted by the high passing influence scores they both received. Unfortunately, much of the attacking impetus that Enrique and Johnson provided was highly wasteful. As noted on the Oh you beauty blog, their pass completion in the final third was woeful. Between them, Enrique and Johnson accounted for 30% of Liverpool’s total losses of possession. Enrique misplaced 9 passes within his own half also, as noted by WhoScored. Generally I’ve interpreted a higher passing influence score as being a good thing but perhaps in this instance this wasn’t the case.

That is why we like him

Aside from Enrique and Johnson, the main passing influence for Liverpool was Lucas. Lucas’ absolute and relative passing influence within in the team has been steadily increasing over recent matches, which is encouraging as he recovers from his injury issues. Unfortunately for Liverpool, Gerrard, Henderson and Downing had less influence than in recent weeks, which alongside the lack of partnership between Shelvey and Suárez, went some way to Liverpool struggling to open up West Brom.